It may not have been a memorable campaign, but by all accounts it was unusual. If nothing else, because one essential ingredient has to date been missing: election fever.
Unlike last year’s general election – and arguably every other election before that – there was no discernable surge of popular enthusiasm in the dying days of the campaign. Events have on the whole been low-key: small corner meetings in Gozo, “taht it-tinda” discussions here and there... no major mass meetings of the kind we normally associate with election campaigns, although Labour came close with its “mass rally” at Ta’ Qali last Sunday.
In fact, what emerges at a cursory glance is that the PL took this election considerably more seriously than the PN. This is entirely understandable: it is after all the first major electoral challenge for incoming leader Joseph Muscat, less than 18 months after his predecessor lost a general election by a whisker. Muscat therefore has a point to prove: anything less than an absolute majority of first-count votes can arguably be described as a defeat for Labour, even if the party wins a majority of seats.
For this reason, Muscat has approached this election as though it were his own be-all and end-all. European issues have been largely absent from the Labour campaign, which instead has focused on matters of purely popular concern. In a reversal of roles from March 2008 – when the Nationalist Party had pinned all its hopes on the persona of its leader – the Labour Party has left no stone unturned to discredit the “GonziPN” motif, with a billboard campaign almost exclusively targeting the Prime Minister in person, as a man who has “lost control” of the country.
Irrelevant to the European theme, perhaps; but clearly the stakes for Labour are higher than a majority of seats in Brussels and Strasbourg.
Over to the PN side of things, and by the same token, an absolute majority for Labour will certainly be interpreted as a massive defeat for the party in government. This in turn may help to explain Gonzi’s curiously ambivalent approach to this election: on the one hand, he has repeatedly sought to downplay the implications of Saturday’s result for the local political scenario. But at the same time, he cannot afford to be entirely dismissive, as a perceived lack of interest on his part may serve to diminish the importance of the European Parliament in the eyes of the electorate.
As the party that took Malta into Europe in the first place, and which still accuses the PL of harbouring an anti-EU stance, the Nationalist Party cannot realistically depreciate the EU, without also undermining its own credibility in the process.
These two opposing forces have therefore combined to make the PN’s campaign a somewhat half-hearted affair, conspicuously less punchy and effective than Labour’s. All things told, a far cry from the PN’s usual approach to general elections, which are traditionally fought on a “winner takes all” basis. So in a sense, one can hardly be surprised that the electorate appears to have lost interest this time round.
Indeed, indications point heavily towards a decline in voter participation since 2004, though it remains to be seen by what precise margin. Our poll today suggests an abstention rate of around 7.8%, but in practice it is likely to be considerably higher, given the amount of voters who are still undecided.
A clearer indication is provided by the sheer quantity of uncollected voting documents. At the time of writing, this stood at over 19,000: almost double the corresponding statistic for the 2004 election. Barring a last-minute change of heart by around 10,000 voters, (the deadline is midnight tonight), the number of uncollected documents will almost certainly be much, much higher than usual. Nowhere is this shortfall more keenly felt than in the north of the island – a fact which strongly suggests that the PN will suffer the most on account of voter abstention.
Ironically, then, it seems that former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami is slowly being proved right in his prediction, some years back, that Maltese politics would “calm down” after EU accession.
The architect of Malta’s EU bid had even predicted an eventual drop in voter turnout, as elections became less visceral and divisive in the new context of EU membership. Of course, it is debatable whether he will relish being vindicated, at the expense of his own party’s standing. Nor can this particular campaign be taken as a precursor to the next general election, where the stakes will no doubt be higher.
But the indications nonetheless point towards a gradual decrease in political hysteria in the years to come, and maybe even the beginning of a slow tailing off in the otherwise complete dominance of political parties in our daily lives.
And when all is said and done, that may not be such a bad thing after all.